I'm a big fan of the Larry Sanders Show, but I was little wary of the way the DVD set Not Just The Best Of The Larry Sanders Show was put together and marketed. Doesn't a show as seminal as Sanders merit being released in full-season sets? If a benevolent deity watches over mankind, then why have all eight seasons of Full House been released on DVD while fans wait with baited breath for the tardy DVD release of Sanders' second season?
I was similarly suspicious of all the hype surrounding the set's special features. Ooh, special features on a DVD. How revolutionary! Gosh, you know what else has special features? Pretty much every DVD. Ever. Christ, even Delta Farce has an audio commentary ("now in this scene, we felt it was important for the audience to see Larry "Git-R-Done" when faced with a series of increasingly substantive challenges"). Besides, it's not as if Not Just The Best Of The Larry Sanders Show has particularly extensive bonus features, just a smattering of audio commentaries, interviews, a feature-length documentary and deleted scenes.
But what the special features lack in quantity, they make up for in quality. I challenge anyone with even half a soul to watch the interviews with Janeane Garafalo and Sarah Silverman and not fall at least a little bit in love with them. The interviews boast the same jittery intimacy and refreshing candor as the show they're commenting on.
The Larry Sanders Show was like a comedy college where Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman, Jeremy Piven, Bob Odenkirk, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Judd Apatow, Paul Simms, and Janeane Garafalo all matriculated. Even Dave Chappelle stopped by for a class or two. Shandling's magnum opus finally made good on the empty promise of every half-assed Hollywood satire by genuinely revealing things about show business that were brutally honest and queasily, compellingly voyeuristic. In its eviscerating darkness and emotional depth, Sanders beautifully exemplified Michael O'Donoghue's famous line about how making people laugh is the lowest form of comedy. But it also boxed Shandling into a corner. After exposing the pitch-black soul of comedy, the narcissism and self-absorption of the male ego, and deconstructing the talk show, Shandling couldn't turn around and cash in with a lazy sitcom or late-night talk show. He'd set the bar too high for a follow-up to be anything but anti-climactic.
In that respect, making a social satire about gender with Mike Nichols must have looked like a promising step in Shandling's professional evolution. It's too bad the result ends up feeling like a feature-length adaptation of the world's longest Playboy party joke. Nichol's What Planet Are You Form? aspires to do for the war of the sexes what Dr. Strangelove did for the Cold War. Conceptually, it also resembles Being There, another tricky black comedy about an idiot savant whose wise-fool pronouncements are mistaken for wisdom by people too self-deluded and myopic to see them for what they are.
Being There and Dr. Strangelove are two of the most perfect comedies ever create, but they each traverse a daunting tonal tightrope: if played just a little broader each could easily have collapsed. Tone proves Planet's Achilles Heel. Where comedy and tragedy were inextricably interlinked in Sanders, here they seem to belong in different movies, if not different planets altogether.
A dick joke movie that tries to become something more, Planet casts Shandling as the most emotionally intuitive resident of a chilly alien planet whose residents have evolved intellectually and technologically but atrophied emotionally. They've denied their feminine side to the point where it disappeared altogether, along with their genitalia and ability to reproduce sexually.
Shandling is sent to Earth to reproduce with a human earthling using his planet's sum knowledge of female behavior: that they enjoy being complimented on the fashionableness of their footwear and pleasing odor and can be pacified by droning "uh huh" during conversations at appropriate intervals. While doin' time on planet earth, Shandling consults regularly with "Hey Now!" Ben Kingsley in the bathroom of a plane. In addition to ruling Shandling's planet, Kingsley functions as the film's answer to the Great Gazoo, the effeminate little green alien only Fred Flintstone and late-period Marlon Brando can see.
Shandling is also equipped with a detachable vibrating penis that figures prominently in the film's weakest gags. Shandling's detachable vibrating penis (which, as Dave Barry might suggest, would make for a kick-ass band name) is like the glow-in-the-dark condom from Skin Deep: a much-ballyhooed sex joke that utterly failed to conquer the world.
Shandling's literal interpretation of earth language gets him, and the film, into all kinds of trouble. When a stripper offers Shandling a condom and he obliviously quips, "My boss has one of those in Scottsdale. He says I can use it," I was suddenly inundated with traumatic Small Wonder flashbacks ("Condom? That is phonetically similar to the word condo. I will now try to place a modest housing unit that is sold rather than rented on my human genitalia"). I'm guessing that probably wasn't what Shandling and Nichols were going for.
Shandling at first behaves like a penis with legs and a voice box spouting hoary pick-up lines until he meets recovering alcoholic Annette Bening, a fragile New Age type who tries to atone for a life of debauchery, self-destruction, and substance abuse by embracing sobriety and self-restraint, and refusing to have sex before marriage. Shandling promptly marries Bening and slowly but surely evolves from a man's man consumed only with lust for power (and plain old lust) into a relatively decent human beingish-type earth creature.
Meanwhile, unnecessary subplots swirl about. Shandling has sex with asshole co-worker Greg Kinnear's smoking hot wife (Linda Fiorentino). John Goodman's obsessive fed jeopardizes his job and his marriage in his pursuit of Shandling. Will Shandling produce the baby needed to help conquer Earth? Does anybody honestly care?
Screenwriters Shandling, Peter Tolan, Michael Leeson, and Ed Solomon have written a relatively complex, multi-dimensional character for Bening. But they failed to write her any jokes. Planet is consequently a film divided against itself. The earnest drama about a damaged recovering alcoholic taking a chance on love with an unlikely new partner gets in the way of a smutty dick-joke movie about an alien with a vibrating, detachable unit. And a smutty dick-joke movie about an alien with a vibrating, detachable unit is bogged down by touchy-feely emotions. Planet is half Lifetime, half Spike TV and 100% confused.
In a representative example of the film's jarring tonal shifts, the big, emotional scene where Shandling finally comes clean and tells Bening all of his secrets immediately follows a sci-fi set piece where Shandling dissuades an alien henchman from coming after him by having his newborn baby fire a ropy stream of urine all over the goon.
It doesn't help that the sci-fi stuff feels like a lazy afterthought or that its observation that men and women are so dissimilar that they might as well belong to different species on different planets would feel a whole lot fresher in a universe without Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus and countless stand-up comics working a similarly tired vein of observational humor. With the exception of "white folks and black folks sure are different!" it'd be hard to imagine a more moribund topic for satire than "them broads sure do love to talk about their feelings while their men folk are trying to watch the damn game in peace!".
Planet posed a formidable challenge to even the savviest, hippest marketing department. So it's a measure of how badly Planet's promotional team screwed the pooch that "Mambo (Number 5)" is ubiquitous in both the film's trailer and the behind-the-scenes featurette included on its DVD. Nothing screams "ambitious sci-fi satire from Mike Nichols and Garry Shandling" quite like being the 50th film of the year to tap into the timeless genius of Lou Bega for its trailer.
On one of the more remarkable special features on the Sanders best-of DVD shows, Shandling and executive producer Judd Apatow argue tensely for eight minutes about a single gag Apatow pitched that Shandling shot down involving Jeffrey Tambor leading a girlfriend's kid around on a leash. Nearly a decade later, neither side is willing to back down: Apatow still thinks it's funny and should have made it into the show. Shandling is equally adamant that it was rightfully rejected. So it's hard to imagine that an über-perfectionist like Shandling could star, produce, and co-write an expensive, ambitious movie that fundamentally doesn't work on so many different levels.
I hated Planet the first time I saw it, but I warmed to it upon a second viewing. Nichols and Shandling set out to make a movie at once riotous and warm, satirical and rich in emotion. Instead they made a movie that's at best mildly amusing and modestly affecting. It's a noble failure that seems to have scared Shandling off making movies permanently, which is a shame. Shandling's famous friendship with Warren Beatty will probably lead to supporting roles in each of the aging pretty boy's upcoming movies, but how is he supposed to fill the other nine years and eleven months of the upcoming decade?
Planet ultimately suggests that O'Donoghue had it wrong: the lowest form of humor is trying to do nothing more than make people laugh and failing miserably. That goes double if those attempts are rooted in gags about detachable vibrating penises and/or jokes seemingly pilfered from syndicated eighties sitcoms about girl robots.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Fiasco